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The Last and Final Word: Pippin Barr

After teaching videogame-design-related subjects for a year at the IT University of Copenhagen, Pippin Barr felt a duty to actually learn the ropes himself and make some games. And it hasn’t taken him long to find some success with releases such as The Artist Is Present and Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment (both of which can be found here). Both managed to get a bunch of positive mainstream coverage.

Check the end of the interview for a bonus link.

Name?

Pippin Barr.

Age?

32.

Location?

Copenhagen, Denmark (but I’m from Wellington, New Zealand originally!).

Development tool(s) of choice?

At the moment I’ve developed all but one of my released games using the combination of FlashBuilder and the flixel library (and Box2D once, too). The other game (GuruQuest) was made in Processing.

And then throw in a few support applications like Pixen (for pixel-oriented graphics), Manga Studio (for drawing-style graphics), Audacity (for audio manipulation), and bxfr (for sound effects).

What do you do?

I guess you mean for a living? My day job is as a lecturer and  supervisor at the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen. I teach two courses at the moment. One involves teaching game designers the essentials of programming as a means to help them think more deeply about game design and to be able to engage better with the process of game making. Essentially, the idea is to more fully understand the medium you’re working with.

The other course is called “experimental interaction” and is all about getting game designers (and anyone else) to expand their ideas of what games are and can be. The heart of the course is the development of a prototype game that is experimental in some way, whether it’s technological or conceptual, along with being able to argue for why the game is the way it is.

Tell me how you became interested in and involved with videogame development?

I became specifically interested in video games and the ways they’re made from a design perspective during my PhD research. I was looking into how the games we play contain “values” which indicate preferable modes of conduct during play, and how that impacts on the play experience. So I spent a few years thinking about games from the academic side of things, basically.

Actually moving toward making games myself happened for a couple of key reasons.

First, once I’d been teaching game design-related subjects at the Center for Computer Games Research for a year, I started to feel kind of irresponsible for not making them myself. It seemed a bit problematic to advise people on game design and to have opinions on what was interesting about it without going through the process myself.

Second, I’d spent quite a long time blogging about popular games I was playing from a kind of game criticism angle. A lot of that time was spent picking away at what I found a bit disappointing with games, so there was another “put your money where you mouth is” trigger involved in that. At a certain point you feel like you should try your hand yourself, rather than solely criticising, at least if you have the requisite skill set to do so.

Finally, there are any number of inspiring figures out there who make games, and the barrier of entry just seemed particularly low. I especially think that getting the chance to hang out with Doug Wilson of die gute fabrik had a big effect - just seeing him come up with crazy game ideas and then go ahead and build them demystified the game making process a lot, made it seem less forboding and elite somehow - more like something I could do.

So I did.

What are your goals and aspirations as a game developer?

Last year my goals were as simple as “make a bunch of games” so that I could just see what happened. I’d wanted to make 10 games, but managed 8 - I had this idea that if you make 10 games you can kind of consider yourself a “proper” game maker in some way, but of course it doesn’t really work that way. At any rate, my core ambition is just to make a lot of stuff that I think is interesting.

This year I added a whole lot of objectives to the list, but the main things I’m focused on are making more games than last year, and making something for the iPhone / iPod before the end of the year - so I’m learning Objective-C and so on to achieve that, which is a bit painful, but hopefully will be rewarding down the line!

What motivates you to keep creating videogames?

Well, as above, I mostly just like the chance to put together these ideas I have as I’m wandering through life. I’ve had a few other “creative” pursuits in the past, particularly writing failed novels and drawing comics, but somehow making games feels like it fits me the best - it was a really great discovery to make. There’s something incredibly satisfying about having an idea for something interactive, and then writing the code and the art and the sounds and the text and so on that makes it a reality. And then just firing it onto the internet so other people might have a look at it.

I guess the shortest answer is just that I have a lot of ideas for things I think would be funny or interesting in game form and I want them to exist, so I make them.

Your creations thus far have been small in scale. Are you working up to something bigger or ‘more substantial’ or do you enjoy exploring concepts with small boundaries?

That’s an interesting question - I’ve asked myself that a couple of times, in fact. I don’t have any plans for a big / long game any time soon, but I think it’s certainly within the realms of possibility - again, I think it’d be an interesting experience to produce something bigger, you’d have different options for how to convey ideas and so on. I actually thought it would be cool to use one of those “game making tools” that are out there as a way to make a game with a lot of content - maybe something like RPGMaker, so I could just draw a bunch of art and write a bunch of story. (I’m sure it would end up being super hard, but it’s nice to dream that tools will make your life easier.)

In the end, though, most of my ideas are pretty concise. And there’s plenty of room for those short-form games, I think.

You tend to try and lean towards unconventional concepts. Do you consider what you’ve released so far to be ‘experiments’?

I’m not sure if I’d call them experiments per se, though they do come from an initial feeling that it would be interesting to make a “game about X”. I’m not really testing out ideas to see what people think, though - I almost see myself as filling certain gaps in the current way that games are developed.

I’m most interested in pushing a little way away from the usual assumptions about what makes up a game, about what you’re “allowed” to do when you design and make one. In that sense I suppose they can be thought of as “experimental games”, but only if you’re looking at them from a very traditional context of what games ought to be like. Otherwise, we might say that they’re just another part of using this amazing medium.

Thoughts on ‘videogames as art’?

It’s one of those things that manages to be simultaneously important and trivial at the same time. I respect the views of the people who find it crucial that games be recognised as an artform, because it’s connected to respect and a place within the broader culture and so on. At the same time, it’s also kind of dumb to be arguing about it. It’s blindingly obvious that games are an artistic *medium* - it would be insane to suggest you just can’t make art with the pieces that make up a game. So in that way, the “games as art” thing is silly.

At best we could start asking whether we think current games are living up to some sort of Fine Art standard. I’m not sure I care a lot. I do think we could at least say that if we’re going to argue for games as an artistic medium, we should be shaking things up a lot more. A huge part of what great art does and has done is challenge assumptions about what you could do with the various media the artists used. A urinal as a sculpture is a pretty glaring example, thanks to Duchamp. We need some Duchamping in game making.

Do you see the need to ‘push videogames forward’ as a medium?

Yeah, I think we should all see that need. But I think it’s happening, too. We’re certainly not in the worst situation with respect to innovation and so on. We have a fairly traditional “blockbuster” thing happening with the mainstream industry, but then there’s a huge amount of different work outside of that. I’m probably biased, but a lot of the cool indie stuff you see out there definitely seems to be doing the the kind of “pushing” that we need.

Does it currently matter to you whether your games are aesthetically pleasing to others?

I read this in two ways. The smaller question is about the actual appearance of the games, the art style, and I guess that on the balance, I’d prefer it if people like the way they look. I put a reasonable amount of thought into the style and so on, after all.

The larger question is probably more about whether I care whether people like my games in general, whether they like my design sense. I guess I’d like to just be able to say “no”, but I don’t think you can help caring a bit about what other people think about your work. It would be nice if other people shared my  particular aesthetic of game design - there’s no denying that’s a pleasant thing. At the same time, I certainly try to keep making games without that in mind. I think, at least outside economic considerations, we’re mostly better off making things the way we want, and then trusting or hoping that there will be people who are into it.

As a developer who is still a on very steep learning curve, what do you find to be the most rewarding parts of the game development process?

From my perspective as a real loner when it comes to making anything, I really love that I can put all these disparate parts of a game together on my own. There’s a magic to spending some time coding, making the input system work, then switching over to draw some animations, then putting them into the game, and having this feeling of gradually building up this consistent *thing* that actually works.

I know a lot of people find working in groups very rewarding too, but for me, there’s that sense of wonder that I could put it all together myself. On a good day I kind of like the learning process itself, too. Sometimes, if I feel like I finally understood something about physics simulation, say.. that’s a good feeling.

And the most tedious parts?

Heh. Probably exactly the same things. Making games can switch from being very rewarding to being agonising quite quickly, just based on your relationship to the idea you have and how smoothly it’s all going. Having to draw the 100th frame of an animation, or trying for the nth time to get some stupidly simple piece of code to do what it’s meant to do, that can be really dispiriting.

I think it’s probably true for a lot of people, but I definitely hit a point in every project where I suddenly feel like the entire thing has been this massive waste of time, the idea is the stupidest thing anyone’s ever come up with, and that I should quit before I put in any more work and ultimately embarrass myself. Fortunately if you keep pushing and trust the version of you who had the original idea, you can usually make it through. Helps if you don’t completely care whether the game is any “good” at the end, too!

There are so many aspects of game development that need to be honed. What aspects do you think are the most important to concentrate on when you’re just starting out?

It might even be the attitude thing I just mentioned. More than anything I think it’s really important to push through the (many) times when you’re hating it and are doubting the entire project. A lot of making games is, of course, just learning the skillset - programming, art, sound, and whatever - but all that stuff can just be *learned*. You keep doing it and you get better. The tough bit is the “keep doing it”. 

So, I’d say the best thing to do is just *decide* you’re going to make a bunch of games, and then cut yourself some slack when you think they suck, or when they *do* suck perhaps. Just commit to making them anyway, for an extended period of time, and then maybe you get the hang of it. We’ll see, I still have pretty crushing self doubt a lot of the time as it stands (including right now!), so I’m not out of the woods. I wonder who is..

Bonus page: Concept game stuff.

Notes

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